The Animal Crossing franchise represents all that is great and horrible with Nintendo. They take a known concept (life simulation), boil it down to its essence, populate it with kooky adorable characters, add a swig of nostalgia, and create a memorable, unfairly addictive experience.
I’m describing the original Animal Crossing on Gamecube, released in 2002. Three years later, they repeated the formula with Animal Crossing: Wild World on DS. Three years after that, they released Animal Crossing: City Folk for the Wii. Aside from slight graphical updates and subtle refinements, in eight years Nintendo has released the same game three separate times.
Compared to similar games such as The Sims, there is very little to do. You move into a town. You choose a house. You plant some flowers. You deliver gifts to other villagers. You catch bugs and fish. You dig up fossils. You buy and arrange furniture. More or less, this describes all you do while playing Animal Crossing.
Why then did I play for two hours the first time I “moved” into my town? Why did I play nearly every day for a week after? Why am I still going back half a year later? And why am I saying “going back” when really I’m turning on a game, not visiting an actual town?
This is one of those games that rewards you the more you play. If you base your opinion of Animal Crossing on your first fifteen minutes, you probably won’t like it. A cartoon animal rendered with ugly textures talks to you on a bus. A smarmy raccoon orders you around. The only actions you have are beyond rudimentary – fishing is not a careful exercise in taunt and lure, but a simple waiting game—you cast your line, you wait, and when the fish pulls your lure down you grab him. These actions are made more immersive with the Wii-mote; it feels good to swing your arm and see your avatar swipe his net through the air, snagging that lazy butterfly. Still, the game allows you to do very little. What makes Animal Crossing great is not what you do in the game, but what the game does to you.
Once you begin to wander around and “live” your life, things start to happen. You come across two creatures whistling. You stop to talk to one of them and they turn around, surprised, and admonish you for sneaking up on them. They stalk away, a black cloud storming over his head. And this is where the magic happens—You honestly feel bad for the guy. Or the cow, rather. Another villager might yell at you to scram for no reason.
The first time this happened I yelled an obscenity back at the screen: “Eff you, Biskit!” Classy, I know. But ten minutes later, Biskit will give you his Cabana Bookcase and you’ll feel kindness toward this pupil-less dog. Remorse, rage, reconciliation: In Animal Crossing, you don’t merely play. You feel.
The big selling point of the original was its use of the Gamecube’s internal clock. At the start of a new game, you put in the date and time. From that point on, your life in the game shared the exact same timeframe as your own. Clocks inside homes display the right time. A belltower tolls on the hour. Start in January and snow covers the ground. Four months later, the snow melts and trees start to bud. Hold on to those turnips for too long and they’ll rot. Eight years ago, the overlap between game-time and real-time was revelatory.
The Wii version retains this essential facet, but the novelty has worn a bit. Other game worlds are now connected to real-world time as a default; certain MMO populations celebrate holidays, just like they do in Animal Crossing. City Folk adds the ability to visit a nearby urban center, but what I expected to be a sprawling metropolis was no more than a town square with a few new shops. You can get a makeover or a haircut at Shampoo, or you can visit the Auction House to bid on items. There’s even a haute couture store filled with designer outfits and furniture that, true to life, are insanely expensive. The city is a neat addition, but feels more like a limited add-on than the groundwork for a true sequel.
But this game is not about its technical prowess or expansive world. Sure, it’s an eight-year old concept, using a portable’s graphics engine with useless improvements. None of that matters once Animal Crossing has you in its clutches. Much of the joy in playing is exploring the game for yourself and being surprised, time and again, by what you find there. I haven’t even mentioned the Gyroids, or the Letters, or Katrina the Psychic. Somehow the voodoo technicians at Nintendo have made pulling weeds a satisfying game mechanic. You’ll want to make enough money to buy that matching chair for your Classic Table, just so the Happy Room Academy gives you a better score. It sounds inane. But if you can give in to the innocent magic found herein, you just may never find your way out.
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A version of this article was originally available on PlatformHeroes.com